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Future extinction hotspots unveiled

March 6, 2006 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Researchers identify likely scenes of tomorrow's conservation battles.

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What do the frozen expanses of northern Canada, the balmy Bahamas and the verdant islands of Indonesia all have in common? They have all been pinpointed as places where the world's mammals are most at risk of future fights against extinction.

The animals that live there are not threatened now, but could yet find their populations in peril.

Researchers led by Marcel Cardillo of Imperial College London compiled the list of the world's top 20 potential hotspots for mammalian extinction by looking at current and predicted data on the extinction risk to almost 4,000 terrestrial mammals. The hotspots are defined as areas where predicted extinction risks are much higher than they are today.

"The aim was to identify areas where a lot of mammal species may not currently be under threat, but because of their biology they may be vulnerable to changes in the future," says Cardillo.

Current extinction risks were compiled by looking at the IUCN Red List of threatened species, which categorizes animals on the basis of their immediate prospects. And future extinction risks were estimated by evaluating different animals' likely responses to changes in their environment - species that reproduce slowly or need a large territory, for example, will be more vulnerable to changes in their habitat.

Unusual destinations

The list, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1, namechecks places that do not typically feature on lists of the world's most threatened habitats. Greenland, the Siberian tundra, the highlands of eastern India and the Patagonian coast are all places where mammals, from polar bears to musk oxen, face an uncertain future.

The work could help to inform future decisions on where to allocate conservation resources, particularly in helping the Convention on Biological Diversity to meet its target of reducing the rate of world biodiversity loss by 2010. "Biodiversity loss is now recognized as a global-scale phenomenon," Cardillo and his colleagues write.

At present, the homes of currently threatened or rare animals are considered to need conservation funds. "This approach is necessarily a remedial one," Cardillo and his team write. "We present a more proactive extension to this approach."

One thing all the regions on the new list share is that they are relatively undeveloped, but could face increasing human encroachment in the future. Human population growth in hotspot areas is one of the greatest threats to vulnerable animals, say the researchers.

They studied mammals, they say, because more data are available on this group than on any other. "It would be important to do it for a few other groups," Cardillo adds. The next obvious group is birds, he says - an ambition that should be achievable in the next few years as more information is gathered.

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  1. Cardillo M., Mace G. M., Gittleman J. L.& Purvis A. . Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA, 103. 4157 - 4161 (2006).


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